Monday, February 27, 2006

Deciphering the Code of Plagiarism

In light of our class's recent discussion of plagiarism, I found this article very well timed: "'Da Vinci Code' Author Accused in London".

Dan Brown, author of the popular book "The Da Vinci Code," has been accused of plagiarism. Specifically, Mr. Brown's trial will be heard in London's High Court due to a supposed lifting of "ideas and themes" from a 1982 Random House published book entitled, "The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail."

Mr. Brown's defense argues that Random House, in its suit, is attempting to claim a "monopoly on ideas or historical debate." Mr. Brown has been sued before for other alleged copyright infringement. Does this particular case highlight just how fine the line of plagiarism can be drawn? At what point can someone write about a somewhat well known piece of conspiracy theory and still claim the tale to be his own? If it is determined that Mr. Brown indeed plagiarised, how much of the profits of his wildly successful book must be surrendered--and what constitutes just compensation? After all, some of the "Da Vinci Code" must have been Brown's work alone, if not most of it. Will he be stripped of everything he's earned on account of the accusations?

Also, and seemingly most important, does the public even care? Noting the upcoming release of the Hollywood movie inspired by Brown's book, will plagiarism affect the book's already massive clout and popularity? I have a feeling that the average American wants entertainment, tinged with conspiracy, and he or she does not care whose sources were used and abused in the making. If I'm right, does this attitude create (or has it created) an environment in which lifting others' ideas and concepts is acceptable?

Lastly, I pose this question: are we out of good, money-making blockbuster concepts for movies and books to the extent that we must borrow from the tried-and-true? Look at the flood of sequels and remakes (read: rehashes) at the box office. Can we entertain with entirely original ideas anymore?

I encourage you to read the article and formulate your own answers to these questions.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Yes, It's Evil!

Reflections on "PowerPoint is Evil" by Edward Tufte

Though I'm aware Mr. Tufte's article is poking fun at the popular "slideware" technology, I can't help but agree with some of his more salient and less red herring comments. Here's a couple of beefs with PowerPoint that this article assisted me in putting into words.

1) Enforced Brevity

I'll admit it--I'm not a man of few words. I like to indulge in the plethora of possibilities that language offers. In this light, PowerPoint stifles creativity in the potential writer. Sure it's supposed to be a tool to assist the speaker in a spoken presentation, but too often its flashiness and features, in essence, steal the (slide) show and supplant the individuality of the speaker. And so, even if I have tons to say on the topic of the devastation that urban renewal wrought on American cities in the latter half of the twentieth century, I'll merely get X number of blank faces, staring happily at my bullet points that read
  • Mill Creek Valley
  • Gateway Mall
  • McRee Town.

Will they even hear that 20,000 low income residents were forced out of Mill Creek Valley simply because it was a poor, black, somewhat down-at-the-heels neighborhood near Union Station, where tourists arrived and formulated lasting first impressions of the city? Hah! Their eyes, much like the bullets, are static and do not touch the adjacent text.

So why can't I just write what I want to say on the slide--or not do slides at all? Call me old-fashioned, but I'd much rather grab a pack of notecards and begin presenting!

2) Pictures? Animations? Hyperlinks?

PowerPoint has too many features. All the bells and whistles distract from the writing and ultimately from the presentation. How do you pay attention to the speaker when you don't even know where the text will be flying in from on the next slide? And the pictures--who can see them? What ever happened to imagination and descriptive, poetic language that could convey more than a photograph ever could?

Okay, so Mr. Tufte and I are being a bit unfair on PowerPoint. It is efficient and, I'll admit it, the pictures and the animations can keep me interested rather than distracting me from the speaker. But you have to admit, he's on to something with the commercialism PowerPoint imposes upon presenters. When we have to "sell" information through a sales pitch rather than persuading the audience to value the knowledge you're imparting without the aid of colorful graphs, there's a problem.

I guess the caveat suggested in the article is a simple, yet important one. Design should never trump content. Still, a world without slideware would be, to most, PowerPointless.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

What's in a Nabe?

It seems every city purports itself to be a "city of neighborhoods."

What really makes a neighborhood though? The City of St. Louis makes a bold claim--that it has 79 of these elusive quasi-political jurisdictions.

Many of these neighborhoods are such that their own residents know nothing of their official names. Anyone ever heard of Princeton Heights (#6)? Kingsway West (#52)? Covenant Blu (#77--that's just north of SLU, by the way)?

Still, the "city of neighborhoods" assignation seems to ring true of St. Louis. Take a walk through Lafayette Square. Its gorgeous "Painted Ladies," its nightlife centered on Park Avenue, its lush and tranquil park (the neighborhood's namesake--and the first public park west of the Mississippi) all say to you, "this is uniquely Lafayette Square."

Perhaps that's a more obvious example. So I'll take my own neighborhood. The Bevo neighborhood (#5) was once a stable white working class neighborhood of modest brick bungalows interspersed with German-style "barnhouses." The neighborhood's centerpiece, the aptly named Bevo Mill, is just that--a wind mill at the corner of Gravois and Morganford, an anachronistic wonder in the heart of urban St. Louis.

Today, Bevo is a bustling center for St. Louis's growing Bosnian population. Some estimates put the St. Louis Bosnian population at between 30 and 50 thousand, and a substantial number of them populate the streets of Bevo. As a newly-introduced ethnic neighborhood, what used to be an area of the city crying for its own distinction among South City nabes is now nothing short of a unique and tight-knit community. Bakeries, nightclubs, coffee shops, restaurants--all Bosnian owned and operated--dot the main commercial thoroughfares of the neighborhood where sad, shuttered empty storefronts once peered forlorn at the indifferent shuffling of traffic.

As I sat down at a Bosnian coffee house named "Cafe Milano," I absorbed the sounds of Eastern European music. Lounging in an impossibly funky red chair, I imbibed the fluidity of the atmosphere, admired the daring interior design of the structure that once housed a much less conspicuous footwear store.

Outside the wide storefront window, passers-by could not help but peer inside at the lights and activity of the coffee shop. Cars lined the street, flanked by the sidewalk so as to avoid the sideswipe by speeding Gravois traffic, and dutifuly lined up behind parking meters once starved for change.

Change, it seems, had been embracing the neighborhood ever since the arrival of the Bosnian immigrants. Their presence infused the area, once a sullen, graying, unambitious series of streets and sidewalks, with a sense a diversity and unmistakable community. Bevo is now every bit the degree of neighborhood that is the more affluent and well-known Lafayette Square.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Reflections on Academic Honesty

Plagiarism is, without a doubt, the ultimate dirty word in academia.

But why should I worry, I think to myself, as I try to appear attentive to the admonitions of the instructor regarding academic honesty on the first day of class. The instructor seems to recognize the tedium of the speech.

"I know you all have heard this before, but..."

I'm not a cheater. I respect my education. I should, right? After all, it's not cheap. I wouldn't throw it away over a term paper freshly purchased from the net.

This unit on academic honesty has, however, managed to raise my eyebrows as to the many shades of plagiarism. To me, it's obvious that you don't swipe someone else's direct words, even with the use of supplementary synonyms, and present it as your own doing. But the unit really got me thinking of what truly constitutes plagiarism. Here are some questions that I had after partaking in the unit:
  • Whom do you cite when you reference a combination of two or more works' ideas in just one sentence?
  • What exactly serves as "common knowledge"? If I know without having to check my facts that, say, the year in which the City of St. Louis split and became an independent entity from St. Louis County was 1876, how do I prove that this was my prior knowledge?*
  • How should a truly unwitting plagiarist be punished?

To me, these questions indicate the problem with the drive to placate plagiarism: are we becoming too harsh? Is there not a lot of wiggle room as to what constitutes plagiarism? Should there be?

Too many professors, it seems, are so bent on catching a plagiarist "in action" that the environment for academic writers becomes a hostile one. Student researchers and writers become forced into assumption of a delicate and precise citation regimen that deindividualizes their writing styles. Writing, and research, especially, become a burden rather than an opportunity to expand the collective mind of academia. The result is dull and cautious writing, laden with block quotes and ample footnotes.

That said, I do not think that measures to hunt out cheaters should be scaled back. I just believe that the average perpetrator of plagiarism is ignorant of his or her crime. That probably means schools should start defining academic dishonesty at an earlier point in the course of a student's education.

Technology has made plagiarism impossibly more complicated. On one hand, students can now escape a procrastination pickle with the help of a little plastic--a simple purchase of a pre-written paper online on a multitude of topics. On the other, that same internet technology has made it possible for professors to search for random phrases in a basic search engine to see if the material is swiped. Often, though, the "Deep Web" can prove to be a cheater's salvation and a professor's bane.

Plagiarism will remain a problem no matter what measures are taken to trump it: cheaters will always find a way to cheat. The important thing to remember is that sometimes the fault is on the side of the professor rather than the student when the alleged plagiarist is as surprised as his or her disappointed instructor that proper citation techniques were not applied.


And, to set a good example...

* Cited from a conversation with Matt Fernandez, St. Louis, MO, February 16, 2006.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Technology A-Z (Revised)

For the sake of brevity (missing from my previous posts), I'll take on a lighter tone and, without cheating (I swear), come up with my own A to Z of technology. Here goes:

Al Gore, father of the internet (?)
Boolean Search
Deep Web
Hits (i.e. website visits)
Jp (= the web domain name for Japan)
Log on
Norton AntiVirus
Online Banking
Restore, System (Is the old comma technique considered cheating?)
Webstar ( think of one!)
Zillion (= the number of hits, rounded up, that you receive when you search the word "web" in Google's search engine)

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Reflections on the Google Subpoenas

Do I care if the government knows what I Google?

In a word, No. But should the government be looking at what I Google? The answer to that question depends upon one's definition of the role of the federal government and the parameters of the First Amendment. It also depends on your personal opinion of President Bush's justification of wiretapping and these subpoenas--that we're in a state of war and that he is merely assuming his emergency powers as the chief executive. In Post-9/11 America, it might be a bit short-sighted to dismiss Bush's apparent fearmongering as, well, only fearmongering. After all, who on September 10, 2001 or before would have anticipated the fall of the World Trade Centers or the wrecking of the Pentagon? Not even our own intelligence agency was confident enough in that point to ensure preemptive action.

So, while my gut tells me wiretapping and snooping into Google searches is intrusive and contrary to Mr. Bush's conservative ideology (bigger government? Republican?), I also cannot shake the feeling that our own CIA would have been/was performing these intrusive searches and background checks anyway, with or without public awareness. I hesitate, then, to lash out against these probably excessive measures of domestic espionage as I do not think that the government will simply arrest anyone who's ever Googled "Islamic Fundamentalism" or "suicide bomber."

Then again, I suppose if I were a bomb maker, child porn fiend, or of any other various and sundry illegal breeds, I'd be at least a little more nervous and opposed to such an act. Truly, I think there is very little room for the government to mistake an upstanding Googling citizen for a national security threat. I know that Michael Moore, producer of Fahrenheit 9/11 and ardent opponent of the also invasive "Patriot Act," would differ. To be sure, civil liberties are being trampled by the Google subpoenas, among other measures being taken. That is wrong. But trust me when I say that it will be done anyway. If the government needs information vital to national security, it will retrieve it with or without public sanction. Just look at the prisoner torture controversy. So the Constitution says no cruel and unusual punishment, huh? Well, let's ship our prisoners to countries equipped with no such clause and with plenty of torture instruments. Problem solved.

While that view may seem overly pessimistic, I think it is truly the victory of the terrorists to sit back and watch as Americans quarrel with their own government over newly-imposed anti-terrorist security measures. The government should not see what I Google, but they will. If Michael Moore is wrong, which I hope he is, I have nothing to hide and therefore nothing to worry about, right?

Saturday, February 04, 2006


With throngs of football fans ready to descend on Detroit for Super Bowl XL tomorrow, "Motor City" will once again seem, if only briefly, on the move. As an urban affairs major and a city enthusiast, I turn my eyes not to Ford Field, but to the city around it. Like an old forlorn mother who cakes her face in foundation and slaps on a spurious smile at the all too seldom visits of her children, the tattered town of Detroit opens its arms to those who left it.

The City of Detroit has long been a case study of urban decay. Its ignoble decline in the latter half of the twentieth century is well documented. Once home to nearly two million residents in 1950, the city loses thousands of residents yearly and hovers just above 900,000 people today. As the automobile capital of the United States, Detroit has suffered the fate of a larger movement away from the manufacturing economy in the United States. As a town literally built on and nourished by the auto industry, its ups and downs (the latter of which predominates) have become, by extension, Detroit's own booms and busts. To complicate matters, race relations have not been the best in the city. The infamous 12th Street Riot in 1967 left 43 people dead and created a black vs. white, city vs. suburb divide that remains today in full force. Today, Metro Detroit remains extremely segregated. The central city is, as of 2000, 82% African American, the largest percentage of any major American city.

Many suburban Detroiters will proudly proclaim that the only time they go to the "city"--such a vilified term in Southeastern Michigan--is for the occasional sports event. And why should they be expected to do anything else? Suburban Detroit offers the cultural amenities and nightlife that most cities safeguard despite all other losses incurred by rapid suburban sprawl. Ask a resident of Troy, of Dearborn, or of Royal Oak. This northern suburb has reportedly earned the distinction of hosting the popular MTV Show "The Real World"--a testament to the city's hipness but a slap in the face to Detroit, as the show has never before located outside the city for which the show is named. Yep, that's right. It'll be "The Real World: Detroit."

As a proud resident of St. Louis--often paired with Detroit in rankings of America's "Most Dangerous Cities"--I can't help but feel for this ailing city. While both cities suffer from scarred reputations and debilitating inferiority complexes, Super Bowl XL's host city has demonstrated just how far it will go to foster the vitality that once filled its streets, that once erected its architectural gems--and in all its ephemeral futility, all for one day, for one game. The city has recently demolished a historic building downtown that once housed Motown Records...for a Super Bowl parking lot. I had also heard a report of a Super Bowl promotional ad that featured an "edited" version of Detroit's skyline into a more pleasing composition. A recent Detroit Free Press article entitled "DETROIT BRINGS 'EM BACK: Like tourists in own town, suburbanites gape at view" says it all. Detroit is a town in need of an image makeover.

Despite these sad attempts to shock the cynics and appease the short-sighted civic boosters, Detroit will remain the same city of 47% "functionally illiterate" residents (, the Second Most Dangerous City in the nation, according to Morgan Quitno, on February 6, 2006. Even with coffers stuffed full of tourist dollars, Detroit will perhaps only be able to temporarily resume the services it has been forced to cut due to a dwindling tax base and increasingly socially-dependent population. On the city's official website, a notice to residents warns that bulk trash pickup was discontinued at the start of the new year. Residents now have to drop their bulk items off at designated sites spread across the city (despite that residents own fewer vehicles than most populations in America and are serviced by an unreliable bus system and no mass transit).

I don't question Detroit's excitement over this one-time event that will, one hopes, show outsiders that there's some life in the city they gave up for dead. I just hasten to celebrate this Super Bowl as a victory for a down-and-out city when there's going to be no one to pick up the trash on Monday, when the tourists head out of town. Will it really make a difference? Was it worth putting up parking lots? I sincerely hope the revenue from this event is put to its best use and that suburban Detroiters return to the streets of downtown Detroit (and beyond) for their post-Bowl revelry. Or will they return behind the psychological wall that has stood so long, both sides embittered and convinced they don't need the other? I hope not.

And while we're thinking wishfully, maybe MTV could put an end to the media's destructive fixation on the perils of Detroit by pulling its cast into the city limits?

Detroit, from a city that knows your pain, I wish you the best.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Reflections on the "The Net Generation Goes to College"

I found the "Net Generation" article to be interesting but also a bit unnerving. Though I truly do not foresee the demise of the face-to-face interaction in the traditional classroom setting, the suggestion of technology's diminution of the spatial learning experience seems dangerous to the fundamental fabric of academia--that of the ongoing acquisition of what Putnam in his work, Bowling Alone, termed "social [or human] capital." Human capital is a sort of tacit knowledge that we gain from personal social interactions throughout our lives and that serves to inform our lives as academics, professionals, and as people.

It has been my experience that the multiple technologies referenced in the article (and its attention span deficient user base) contribute more to the learning process in a sort of subsidiary role. Email, online assignments, and even online classes can serve as excellent tools in the classroom, but they fill, in my opinion, a limited niche. Human and social interaction is a latent goal of education. We forge essential relationships and learn how to adapt to even mundane social settings through personal encounters with our professors and fellow students. To suggest that the depersonalization, the removal of the spatial and physical element, of education is a trend toward which we should resign ourselves to gravitate is an unacceptable proposition. The "multitasking" and restlessness of the "Millennials" are perhaps not the symptom of an obsolete educational setting so much as they are the malady themselves. Education should not focus on catering to the short attention spans if this means removing coursework from a piece of paper--and more importantly, a desk in a room full of classmates.